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story.lead_photo.caption Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects is renovating the Winchester Auto Store at Eighth and Spring streets in downtown Little Rock and plans to move into the building, which was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects is behind a $2.9 million project to renovate an empty 72-year-old building in downtown Little Rock.

The firm not only is designing the renovation of the old Winchester Auto Store at the southeast corner of Eighth and Spring streets, it's going to be the firm's new home.

"We wanted to find a space more reflective of the work we do as architects, not a spec office building but something we develop and invest in," said Wesley Walls, a principal in the firm and leading the design process.

Rehabilitating the building as its new primary headquarters will also provide new ways for the firm's employees to interact while at the same time investing in the heart of the state's capital city, he said.

Since a merger 10 years ago between Wilcox Group Architects and Polk Stanley Wilcox Rowland Curzon Porter Architects, the firm has been based in a leased office building on Cottondale Lane in the Riverdale area west of downtown. The firm also has an office in Fayetteville.

The merger came in the midst of a economic downturn, so it was a decision based on expediency, Walls said.

But about five years ago, the firm began looking for a new home with a focus on the urban core of Little Rock and North Little Rock. Among the potential sites was what now is called the East Village, a site that Walls said the firm couldn't make work.

A competitor twice its size, Cromwell Architects Engineers, wound up moving its headquarters to East Village.

"It's really hard to find something that's the right price, that has character, that is the right size," said Walls, whose firm has about 50 employees, including 35 in Little Rock. "There are a lot of cool buildings that are just too big a scale for just us to occupy."

The search grew more deliberate two years ago and was narrowed to two potential sites within blocks of each other. The firm unanimously selected the Winchester Auto Store, said Ashley Kerksieck, the firm's marketing director.

Work on the building is starting just after it was named to the National Register of Historic Places as a "rare surviving example of an Arte Moderne commercial building in Little Rock ... and would have been in keeping with the streamline styles of automobiles at the time,' according to its nomination letter.

"Built in 1947, it retains most of its original features that are reflective of the state," the nomination letter said. "These features include low, horizontal lines and curved elements, and the use of decorative curved canopies, glass blocks, precast concrete, reinforced concrete and steel trusses."

The building was built by Dennis and Maude Winchester, marking "the success of their Pre-WWII business in the auto parts and repair service and the post-war burgeoning of the automobile industry, nationally and locally," the letter said.

Gabe Holmstrom, who heads the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, said the move of the 42-year-old architectural firm will add energy to that area of downtown.

"Creative companies like that have shown the ability to transform these long-vacant spaces into some really cool buildings and centers of activity," he said.

Holmstrom pointed to CJRW -- the web design, marketing, advertising and public relations firm -- which relocated to space at Third and Main streets, as well as Cromwell in East Village.

"There's certainly a blueprint for this type of move, and I'm certainly excited to see them come downtown," he said.

The Winchester Auto Store later was renamed Quality Auto Parts and operated until about 1978 when the auto parts business was sold. It has remained vacant for much of the intervening years. According to the nomination letter, it was used for a time by the Arkansas Opera Theater for storage and possibly as a place to rehearse in the 1980s.

It remained in the Winchester family until 2016.

Little has changed since it was built in 1947, Walls said.

"It's almost like it is frozen in time," he said. "I don't think we'll find any surprises."

Inside the building is a large open space with a mezzanine and garage area, the latter of which will be transformed into a meeting and social event area that the firm has dubbed "The Garage."

When completed by this fall, the building will have eight offices, four meeting rooms and work stations for about 30 people.

Much of the original building elements will be preserved, in part because the building's placement on the national register requires it, but also because the elements work well for the firm's work.

"The curved corner, the steel-framed windows and the mezzanine just was really interesting," Kerksieck said. "It was open already. You could see how it worked together."

The move reflects not only the building's character and potential, but the character and potential of downtown Little Rock, Walls said.

"This is much less about an investment in a building than it is in our people, our culture, and our mission to help transform the places where we live, work, worship and play," Walls said. "We're excited about the future of Little Rock and are proud to be part of the continuing transformation of our city's urban core."

SundayMonday Business on 02/24/2019

Print Headline: Historic building in downtown Little Rock new site for firm; $2.9M redo planned

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